New York

Scott Lyall

The bluntness of the literary citation in Scott Lyall’s Washington Square, 1997, might leave viewers unfamiliar with Henry James’ 1881 novel wondering what fundamental elements they are missing. The book may be fairly common reading, but in borrowing its title, the installation can’t avoid a certain clubby tone, demanding a well-delimited “interpretive community” (to use Stanley Fish’s term). Borrowing from canonical or high—culture sources in contemporary art sometimes masks a not-so-noble attempt to confer an aura of erudition on the work in question. Yet in the eloquent text distributed by the gallery, Lyall states that acquaintance with the novel is not a prerequisite for understanding his installation. We shouldn’t take the artist’s word for it, though; is the reference to the once-ritzy New York address and the book that took its name in fact essential to the piece?

The interplay of carefully demarcated spaces is a primary focus of Lyall’s layered narrative, invoking oppositions between public and private, outdoor and indoor, nature and culture. The square, a privileged element of urban design, frames “landscape” and “nature” and turns them into geometry. The protagonist of Lyall’s story is sculpture and its history; the artist conflates an idea of the statue as public, civic monument with the pedestal-less Modernist sculpture and the contemporary, site-specific installation. The architectural components of the exhibition space are cleverly involved: the floor is of roughly polished beige limestone squares appropriate for indoors or out, gallery space or urban park, and the central column plays the role of either monument, statue, or lone tree. Placed around the column, the main construction, which never rises above the height of the window sill, is part bench, part fence, exploiting a typically sculptural formal tension between horizontality and verticality. The stacks of painted sheets of wood suggest both construction and deconstruction, assembly and removal, the beginning of the story and its denouement.

Strategically chosen objects mark the intersections of some of Washington Square’s spaces. A piece of fur, casually tossed over one of the benchlike structures, may be a fine garment—left behind at the Salon, or while promenading en plein air—or a dead animal. A fresh flower (replaced periodically) in a glass vase speaks, like the square itself, of nature's ornamental role in the bourgeois desire for domestication. Flower and fur complicate the work’s formal articulation, adding a romantic and fetishistic note that goes along with the cozy, boudoir palette of red tones, from somber maroon and sienna to a very pale pink.

Lyall’s claim about the accessibility of his piece, then, is a fair one; at issue here is not so much the doings of the wealthy and fashionable as the history of sculpture, from monument to installation, and its intersection with bourgeois civic life. One might ask why he involves James’ narrative at all: perhaps trying to broaden his work’s allusions, he ends up selling it short.

Adriano Pedrosa